Dorje Shugden in 3,211 words or less

Should the worship of Dorje Shugden – by devotees who consider the practice a sacred commitment – be banned by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama?

I chose this topic of research for a variety of reasons, not all of which may eventually become clear to the reader, but I do want to explain how it is that an obscure religious ritual that originated in Tibet several centuries ago fits into Unit Two of Taking Sides, “Culture and Values”, and specifically how it fits into my own cultural milieu and is relevant to my values. Some explanation and background information is called for here before we can begin to examine the chosen opposing points of view on this issue.

Who is Dorje Shugden, and why is there an attempt to ban the rituals associated with him? At this point I must admit that the topic I have chosen is not an easy one to introduce to people outside of its context of origination, which is that of Tibetan Buddhism, so let’s begin with the basics and dig into the quarrel as we go on.

Background Information

Dorje Shugden is a Dharmapala, and “Dharmapala” is a Tibetan word that is most widely translated as “protector of the Dharma”. “Dharma” means “truth” and refers to the teachings of Buddha. Put simply, Dorje Shugden can be thought of as a sort of guardian angel. This guardian angel plays a major role in the religious practices of those who study and practice within the lineage of Buddhism handed down in Tibet from the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), also known as the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. The name of this lineage is “Gelukpa”, which is generally translated as “virtuous person.”

Je Tsongkhapa, one of the great scholars and teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, is renowned for having been a reformer of Buddhism in Tibet late in the 14th century and is known especially for his clarification of Buddha’s teachings and his institution of a strong ethical code. In fact, Je Tsongkhapa literally wrote the book on Tantric Ethics, and is described as having “swept away wrong views with the correct and perfect ones”.1 It is primarily this “purity” of the Dharma that Dorje Shugden protects. However, the role of the Dharmapala is larger in scope and extends to caring for and benefitting practitioners of the Dharma and helping to remove obstacles to a practitioner’s spiritual path. Sometimes, a Dharmapala will actually stir up negative conditions and experiences in order to help strengthen a practitioner’s devotion to going for refuge to The Three Jewels of Buddha, (the teacher), Dharma, (the teachings), and Sangha, (the community or “congregation” of practitioners).

The word “Jewels” is used to remind practitioners that each of these facets of one’s experience in Buddhism is precious and valuable, like a jewel. (This is why we need Dharma Protectors, much as we would be careful to make sure valuable gems were secured and preferably protected, so too with our spiritual resources.) The word “Sangha” is now popularly translated to include all practitioners in a given community, but its literal translation is a reference specifically to those practitioners who have achieved realizations on the spiritual path: those who have mastered the various techniques of meditation and achieved the results expected from such mastery. “Tantric Ethics” is a compilation of the vows taken by a practitioner of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. Translated literally, Vajra-Yana means ‘Indestructible Vehicle’. Though a full explanation of this would easily make a book of its own, I’d like to briefly describe the three primary branches of the lineage tree of Buddhism.

The earliest form of Buddhism was one in which the practitioner sought only his own release from “Samsara”, which is the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth (or reincarnation). The next branch to grow on this tree was the Maha-Yana, or “Great-Vehicle” branch, and in this form of Buddhism, one strives not only for their own liberation from Samsara, but for the liberation of all living beings. It is in the Mahayana tradition that the role of the “Bodhisattva” was conceived. A Bodhisattva is a practitioner who spontaneously wishes – and works — for the liberation of others before his or her own liberation. Finally, from the Mahayana, there developed the Vajrayana, sometimes referred to as the Mantrayana, which is a reference to the use of “Mantras” (short-hand prayers that are recited at least once, and ideally six times, daily by the Vajrayana Buddhist). Vajrayana Buddhism is “Tantric” Buddhism.

Put simply, the word Tantra refers to the so-called secret teachings – those teachings that are passed (or transmitted) from teacher to student directly in a relationship that is known as student/master or Yogi/Guru. In the west we often use “Lama” rather than “Guru”, as the word Guru carries baggage we don’t want to haul around with us.

This brings me finally to one of the most important aspects of this question regarding Dorje Shugden: those who answer “NO” have entered into a relationship that is basically a contract – or bond — with their Guru, who has assigned the prayers to Dorje Shugden as part of the student’s practice of Buddhism, and they feel it would be improper not to keep their promises (or more accurately, “vows”) to their Guru. The Yogi/Guru relationship is not well understood in the West, and this has sometimes led to abuses of power by alleged Gurus. I must say “alleged” Gurus, because a true Guru (sometimes translated as “spiritual friend”) would never abuse the dynamics of the Guru/Yogi relationship.

For me, and for many people I know, this has been a personal trouble which is part and parcel of a much larger social and cultural issue. I first heard about this controversy in 1998 when I read the articles which represent the “YES” and “NO” responses to the question herein. I found the interviews very interesting, but slightly irrelevant to my spiritual path at the time, as I was not yet “officially” Buddhist. By “not yet officially” here, I refer to the fact that I had not yet gone through the ceremony known as taking refuge, during which an individual takes the five primary vows in Buddhism: to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants.

By the time I officially took refuge in Buddhism – much as a ship takes refuge at port in a storm — I had all but forgotten about this family feud within Tibetan Buddhism, which is tantamount to the Hatfield and McCoy feud with which many of us are familiar in America. Being American, and not Tibetan, I was not familiar with the schism associated with this issue, so when I reached a point where I seriously needed a safe port in the storm that was my life at the time and “crashed” a refuge ceremony at a Buddhist Centre in Baltimore, I knew that the image of Dorje Shugden on the wall in the shrine room was familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was familiar or where I could have previously seen it. When I mentioned that I wondered where I had seen this image before, the monks at this center found it “most auspicious” that I had some recognition of Dorje Shugden and assured me that this was due to karmic imprints from previous lives spent practicing Dharma. (While I don’t dismiss this notion, the painting of Dorje Shugden that I found familiar was in fact the same image used in the magazine in which the interviews were published.)

The interviews I have chosen to use as the “YES/NO” responses to the title question were published in the spring of 1998 in a Buddhist publication titled Tricycle Magazine, The Buddhist Review. Consequently, at first glance it might appear that I have chosen to examine an issue that’s out of date, but this feud is more active now than ever, with the Buddhist practitioners on the “NO” side engaging in well-organized protests at teachings given by the Dalai Lama throughout the world. The intended audience for these interviews would have been primarily the readership of the magazine, which consists mostly of Buddhists in America. However, it must also be noted that the magazine’s editor, the interviewer, and both interviewees were certainly aware that the audience would quickly expand to Buddhists and scholars of religion around the world.

Responses to the Question

Let’s examine the “NO” response. The answer of “NO” comes from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the founder and spiritual director of the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism. In fact, the New Kadampa Tradition was formed as a response to the question we are examining in this paper. In the late 1990’s, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama issued a proclamation stating that the practice of reciting prayers to Dorje Shugden was to be discontinued. I should mention here that the Dalai Lama himself engaged in reciting these prayers for a couple of decades – basically right up until shortly after the Guru who had transmitted (or assigned) this practice to the Dalai Lama passed away. Another concept that I should hasten to explain is that of the “Tulku” or reincarnation of a spiritual master. His Holiness is referred to as the 14th Dalai Lama because he is on his 14th life in this realm as we know it.

I mention this because one of the other “NO” responses to this question comes from the reincarnation of Trijang Rinpoche, and Trijang Rinpoche is the Guru who initiated both Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and His Holiness the Dalai Lama into the practice of reciting prayers to Dorje Shugden. Incidentally, a point that should be mentioned for the clarification of context with regard to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s position, is that Geshe la’s brother has worked directly with the monk who serves as the Oracle of Dorje Shugden – that person through whom Dorje Shugden communicates with ordinary people in this ordinary world.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso uses evidence that is common knowledge within his culture as well as anecdotal evidence based on his own experience engaging in the practice of reciting prayers to Dorje Shugden for several decades. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso – also known as Geshe-la, which is a term of endearment — describes the process of Dorje Shugden practice: “Basically, the Dharmapala practice includes the practices of refuge and generating compassion for all living beings. Then guru yoga, visualization of the deity, and making offerings. Then requests for success in our Dharma practice, for the pacifying of obstacles to our practice, and to fulfill the wishes of practitioners. Finally, there is a dedication of the virtues accumulated during this practice for the happiness of all living beings.”2 What Geshe-la has given us here is a basic outline of most Vajrayana practices. The “guru yoga” to which he refers is a part of the ritual in which one acknowledges – and renews – the pledges made to the teacher who initiated the student into the practice. “Visualization of the deity” is, as it sounds, the process in the ritual of visualizing the deity to which one is preparing to make offerings. Generally, these offerings are described as “both set out and imagined” in order to include not only physical offerings placed on the shrine, but also a type of offering called the Mandala Offering, in which one basically visualizes and offers all good things in the universe to the deity. Then, as with most types of prayer, there is some request for help on the spiritual path, and in the case of these Vajrayana practices, this is requested not only for oneself but also for others.

The “dedication of all the virtues” that Geshe-la mentions is based on the belief that while engaging in spiritual practices, one accumulates “merit” or what some might call “good karma”, and in Vajrayana Buddhism, this good karma is offered back to others rather than simply accumulated for oneself.

When the interviewer asks, “You believe that Dorje Shugden is a Buddha?” Geshe-la replies, “I believe this, yes.” This is a central point on which the two camps of “YES” and “NO” differ, with the “YES” camp indicating that Dorje Shugden is not a Buddha, or an Enlightened Being, and therefore not a deity who can offer spiritual refuge. As it turns out, this issue dates back to the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who is well known as “The Great Fifth” to Tibetan Buddhists. As Lindsay G. McCune writes in her Master’s Thesis: “Drakpa Gyeltsen, on the other hand, is an individual who needs some familiarization. He was born in 1618 and, as a young boy, was identified as a potential incarnation of the recently deceased Fourth Dalai Lama, Yönten Gyamtso (1589-1617). As one can deduce, the boy was not installed as the Fifth Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, the Gelukpa authorities agreed that there was still something quite unique about this young boy, and it was eventually determined that he was the incarnation of another important Gelukpa figure: Sonam Gelek Pelzang (1594-1615), the fourth incarnation, or trülku, in the Drepung Zimkhang Gongma line. By all accounts, Drakpa Gyeltsen performed his duties as the Drepung Gongma with an impressive degree of aptitude and finesse. Apparently, however, a number of other incarnate lamas and government officials became envious of his popularity.

One of these lamas may have been the Dalai Lama himself; however, details on this point are unclear and, therefore, difficult to verify. Whoever his enemies were, it is clear that they must have been influential because, distorted though the precise facts may be, it is certain that his untimely death was in some manner the result of the ridicule he received from them. Various stories abound about the nature of Drakpa Gyeltsen’s mysterious death. Some postulate a sinister assassination, while others report a woeful suicide.”3 The “YES” camp believes that Drakpa Gyeltsen reincarnated not as a human being but as a “hungry ghost”, a type of being that lives in a realm “parallel” to the human realm and is often a mischievous spirit, like the concept of a poltergeist. The “NO” camp maintains that Drakpa Gyeltsen achieved enlightenment, which would have made him a Buddha, a being exempt from being involuntarily born in any of the realms of “Samsara.”

This brings us to the “YES” response to the question, which maintains that Drakpa Gyeltsen reincarnated as Dorje Shugden in the hungry ghost realm. The “YES” response comes from Venerable Thubten Jigme Norbu, and it is not without significance to context here that Venerable is the elder brother of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, given that it is the Dalai Lama who banned the practice of Dorje Shugden. In the interview, when Mr. Lopez asks, “What is the role of ‘protector deities’ in Tibetan Buddhism?”, Venerable replies, “There are two kinds: transcendent protectors and worldly protectors. Among the transcendent protectors you have Mahakala and many others. These are considered fierce forms of enlightened beings that help remove obstacles in one’s practice of the Dharma. On the other hand, you have worldly protectors, as distinct from transcendent protectors. These have their origin back in the great old days, when Buddhist leaders are said to have converted the local deities into protectors.”4 Venerable also uses common knowledge from his culture and anecdotal evidence in his argument.

Getting down to the nitty of the gritty, as it were, there are a few relevant aspects of this issue that are not fully addressed by either of our interviewees. The real issue here, hiding behind all the veils of mystery and secrecy, is sects. That’s right: let’s talk about sects. The Dalai Lama’s position is that the practice of Dorje Shugden promotes sectarianism, and while it’s not impossible to dance around the topic in such a way as to avoid this central issue, it remains the central issue nonetheless. The purpose of Dorje Shugden is to keep pure and protect the Dharma of Je Tsongkhapa. When Je Tsongkhapa “reformed” Buddhism in Tibet by clarifying the Buddha’s teachings and establishing a strict code of ethics, he basically started his own limb on the tree of Buddhism: the Gelukpa. Though Tsongkhapa himself had teachers from different traditions, the teachings that he gave and the code of ethics he established had the effect of shutting out the other major schools of Buddhism in Tibet, most especially the Nyingma tradition. The Dalai Lama feels that as a spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, people who collectively practice any or all of the four primary sects or schools of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama can’t choose one school and declare it the best, or the most pure, as he is looked up to and venerated by members of all four schools of Tibet.

Here I begin to tread on thin ice, as I have “insider” information, and am bound by oath to keep most of it “inside.” (Though 90% of it has been leaked over the centuries anyway, and with Globalization and the Internet, there are Tantric “secrets” all over the place.) I can safely say that the Initiation into the practice of Dorje Shugden carries with it some vows and oaths, as is the case with all initiations in Buddhism (and, I imagine, in most types of initiation into “secret” societies.) One of the vows associated with the initiation into Dorje Shugden practice is that the practitioner will only study the Dharma of Je Tsongkhapa, and will not study or practice philosophy or ritual from any of the other three schools of Buddhism. One can easily see how this would be interpreted as Sectarianism.

So where do I stand on this question? SHOULD the worship of Dorje Shugden be banned for practitioners who received this initiation from their Vajra Master (Guru)? No. In my opinion, it should not be banned – most especially for those who have a sacred commitment to their Guru which predates the ban – and the people who practice it should not be discriminated against. In the Tibetan community in exile in India, this ban has had the effect of ostracizing many Buddhists who feel it is their duty to their own Lama to continue this practice. I do not believe that someone who practices the veneration of Dorje Shugden should be outcast, unable to buy items at the market, unable to walk down the street without fear of being the target of attacks by rabid followers of the Dalai Lama.

But here’s where it gets especially tricky for some of us: some of us have “Samaya” (vows, bonds) not only with the Dalai Lama but also with Lamas who side against the Dalai Lama. This places many people in turmoil and confusion. Which Master do I serve? My humble but well-educated opinion is that it is possible to navigate relationships with people on either side of this issue without either praising or condemning anyone at all. I liken this to “licking the honey from a razor blade”. It can be done, but it must be done correctly if one is to avoid injury.

  1. Robert Thurman, Life & Teachings of Tsongkhapa, p. 34
  2. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, An Interview with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tricycle Magazine, Spring 1998
  4. Venerable Thubten Jigme Norbu, An Interview with Thubten Jigme Norbu, Tricycle, Spring 1998

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3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. The author has presented the two sides of the issue very well. The information given will be useful for people who are confused about the ban and all the problems that come with it. I agree with his “humble but well-educated opinion” in the conclusion, that it is best neither to praise nor to condemn anyone. In this way, we do not cause harm to ourselves and to others.
    By the way, “dharmapala” is a sanskrit word. The Tibetan word is “chos skyong”.

  2. I will obviously say no to the Ban of Dorje Shugden Practice with some simple and humble logic. Dorje Shugden is a Dharma Protector and he is not the only one in Vajrayana Buddhism. In the 4 Lineages in Tibetan Buddhism there are also Dharma Protectors like Mahakala etc. All these Protectors are there to help not to harm. So is Dorje Shugden who comes from the Gelupa School. Real and pure Buddhism teaches us not to condemn, but respect what others practice if there is no harm done. There are two types of Dharma Protectors. Enlightened and worldly Protectors. Dorje Shugden is an enlightened Protector.

  3. I appreciate the time, research and explanation the writer puts into this article. The writer wrote the article to communicate this issue to everyone, irregardless of our background and exposure (or lack of it) to Tibetan Buddhism and the practice of Dorje Shugden.

    It is written that Trijang Rinpoche is the Guru who initiated both Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and His Holiness the Dalai Lama into the practice of Dorje Shugden.

    So here we have a Guru with two students. Geshe Kelsan Gyatso spread the practice to the west via NKT and the Dalai Lama put a ban on the practice. Guru-Student relationship is pinnacle in the Vajrayana path. To break off from what has been given by a Guru is detrimental not only for this lifetime but future lifetimes.

    So what is going on? We are not discussing the actions of superficial practitioners but of highly evolved spiritual beings.

    In my opinion, the outer actions look like a breach of vow has occurred. However, this is not the first time the Dalai Lama has practiced and stopped practicing yet he has reincarnated back and recognised by high lamas. I trust the lineage lamas that they cannot be wrong. Despite what’s going on with the Dalai Lama’s ban, this practice is reaching far and wide, and been promoted and protected by china. Best is to focus on the practices our Gurus have given us and not disparage any lamas.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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